With free agency and the draft firmly in the rear-view mirror and organized team activities underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran outside linebacker Matthew Judon.
Name: Matthew Judon
Position: Outside linebacker/Defensive edge
Jersey number: 9
Opening day age: 30
Size: 6-foot-3, 260 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2024 (2025 UFA)
What is his experience? Even though he spent his college career at Division-II’s Grand Valley State, Judon put himself in a position to hear his name called during the NFL’s 2016 draft: the Baltimore Ravens selected him in the fifth round and installed him as a rotational depth member of their outside linebacker group. After already playing 30 percent of defensive snaps as a rookie and registering four sacks from the edge, Judon took over a starter-level role in Year 2 and never looked back.
He remained a prominent member of the team’s defense throughout the rest of his tenure in Baltimore. Including the 2020 season, which he spent under the franchise tag, Judon appeared in 76 regular season games and four playoff contests for the organization; he registered 35.5 sacks, forced eight fumbles and had two recoveries, and notched a safety. Along the way, Judon also was named to a pair of Pro Bowls while finishing as Baltimore’s sack leader in each of his last two seasons as a Raven.
Judon continued his impressive play after joining the Patriots on a massive four-year free agency deal. Earning another Pro Bowl nod, he led the team in quarterback takedowns while proving himself a key member of a rebuilt defensive front seven. Judon was able to add 18 more games and 12.5 sacks to his already strong career totals during the 2021 season.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off a very good five-year stint in Baltimore, the team did not employ the franchise tag a second time to keep Judon from entering free agency. He never made it to the official open market, however: the Patriots and Judon agreed to join forces just hours into the legal tampering period, coming to an agreement on a four-year, $54.5 million contract. The deal spoke a clear language that New England viewed the former fifth-round pick as a major part of its operation moving forward.
It did not take Judon long to show that he would be just that. Following an outstanding training camp and preseason — one that saw him escape a potentially dangerous injury situation in his very first game as a Patriot — he showed his disruptive skills. After not registering a sack in his debut versus Miami, he had 6.5 quarterback takedowns over his next four games: during that four-week span, Judon laid the foundation for what would eventually end up as his third straight Pro Bowl campaign.
While not keeping up that relentless pace, Judon continued to be a consistent difference maker for the Patriots over the next two months. By the time the club’s early-December bye week came around, he had already set a new record for sacks in a single season under head coach Bill Belichick: Judon had 12.5 sacks to his name at that point in time. However, he cooled off significantly after his red-hot start and was unable to keep his momentum going. In fact, he ended the year going sack-less in five straight games.
Judon’s first season with the Patriots therefore came to a close with those 12.5 sacks — most on the team and seventh best in the NFL — as well as 32.5 other quarterback disruptions: he was additionally credited with 14.5 quarterback hits as well as 18 hurries. Furthermore, Judon registered one fumble recovery (to seal New England’s Week 5 victory over the Houston Texans); he also had 44 tackles in the running game and 17 versus the pass, missing seven such attempts for a missed tackle rate of 10.3 percent.
Despite his drop-off in production late in the year, his first year in a Patriot uniform was a successful one overall for Judon. Not only did he establish himself as the club’s best pass rusher and a solid player in the running game, he also was quite durable: despite a brief stint on the Covid-19 list late in the year, Judon appeared in all 18 of New England’s games and was on the field for 900 of a possible 1,135 defensive snaps (79.3%) as well as 115 more in the kicking game (of 464; 24.8 percent).
On top of his on-field contributions, the veteran edge linebacker also adapted well to life in New England. Showing some good chemistry with his new teammates, Judon developed into an outspoken tone-setter for one of the best defenses in football as well as a vocal leader in the locker room. The Patriots made a major investment in Judon, and he delivered on nearly all aspects in Year 1 in Foxborough.
What is his projected role? Judon was used primarily as an outside linebacker during his time in Baltimore, and New England did not make any major changes to his role during his first year in town. Heading into 2022, the expectation is that things will stay the same for the 30-year-old. He will remain the team’s number one player on the edge and rarely leave the field due to his abilities to keep running plays from reaching the corner on early downs and rush the quarterback in passing situations.
Does he have positional versatility? The majority of Judon’s snaps both in Baltimore and during his first year in New England came on the line of scrimmage as a traditional outside linebacker. That being said, his size — he is listed at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds — also makes him a candidate to play an off-the-ball role in the box. He ddi just that only a mere 2.3 percent of his defensive snaps last season, but might have some untapped potential in this area.
What is his special teams value? Judon played just 132 combined snaps in the game’s third phase in 2019 and 2020 — all of them on the Ravens’ punt return and field goal/extra point blocking units — but the Patriots gave him a slightly bigger workload last season. Seeing action on both those teams again, he was on the field for almost one fourth of New England’s kicking game snaps. A similar usage and workload should be expected this season as well.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second season of the four-year deal he signed with the Patriots in 2021, Judon carries a cap hit of $16.5 million this year — currently the highest on the team. That number consists of an $11 million salary, $4.5 million signing bonus proration and $1 million worth of likely-to-be-earned roster bonuses. While all of his salary is fully guaranteed, New England could bring his cap hit down by converting parts of it into a signing bonus to spread out the impact over the remainder of the restructured deal.
How safe is his roster spot? Judon’s contract situation alone would be enough to keep him on the roster for 2022. On top of it, however, he also is the team’s clear-cut top option on the defensive edge. While youngsters such as Josh Uche or Ronnie Perkins might see increased action this season following the release of Kyle Van Noy, neither will realistically challenge Judon’s standing on the roster. He is a lock to make the team, and play at least three fourths of snaps every week.
One-sentence projection: Judon will again finish the season as the Patriots’ leader in multiple defensive categories, including sacks.